Today’s reading from Nehemiah speaks of the circumstances of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the first steps taken in their coming out of exile.
Let’s consider the context – it was the 5th century BC and the Israelites had recently been through the incredibly traumatic experience of exile. We must remember how a century or so previously, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and forced the majority of its inhabitants out of their homeland. No wonder we are told that by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept in a foreign land, strangers in a strange land and dislocated from everything that they held dear.
Exile in Babylon proved to be an incredibly tough experience. Fast forward 70 years and the Persians took over from the Babylonians and incredibly allowed the exiles to return home. We should bear in mind that a period of 70 years spans a generation so the Israelites returning “home” were not returning to a home they will necessarily have known; it will have been the home of their parents. In several waves, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild their lives, but not exactly lives as they had known. If exile was tough, trying to get back to a “new normal” amid so much uncertainty was even harder.
Perhaps that sounds familiar to us today? We too may have felt exiled due to the pandemic – unable to do many of the things that previously we might have taken for granted. Lockdown is never easy, and at the time of posting my country is in the middle of a 3rd lockdown. So many false starts. So many shattered hopes. Finding a new normal and rebuilding life on the other side can feel even more challenging.
However, when the great leader Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem he managed to mobilise the inhabitants to action; the walls of the city were rebuilt – in itself a very significant and symbolic act. The people began to feel secure again. Take heart because with God on our side, the rubble can be raw material and the ruin can once again feel like home. As a people we can be incredible resilient and adaptable.
With the physical fabric rebuilt, this is where the key character in our passage fits in. Ezra also returned to Jerusalem and worked with Nehemiah. He had a different skill set. Nehemiah was a visionary leader. Ezra was a Bible teacher. In Nehemiah 8, it is Ezra who takes the lead as God’s people regather around God’s word.
- The people told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses (v1)
- Ezra read from the Book of the Law of Moses from daybreak until noon (v3)
- He read to men, women and others who could understand – implying that those present included children (v2)
- The first day of the seventh month is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (v2).
- Everybody listened attentively (v3)
- The event included praise and worship – the people bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground (v7)
- When people heard the Words of the Law of Moses they were so convicted by what they heard, they were filled with contrition, brought into a place of repentance and wept (v9). But Nehemiah said “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our LORD. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (v10) The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” (v11)
- Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (v12)
If the challenges of this pandemic have shown us nothing else, we have been presented with an opportunity to reflect upon what actually is really important in our lives, that duty of care and responsibility we have to one another, a deeper appreciation of the simple things we hitherto have taken for granted, and to embrace the truth and listen to people of integrity, not people who are like shifting sand.
What can shape and guide us in doing that? God’s Holy Word and our faith and trust in Him. God led his people out of exile, and he can lead us to the other side of this pandemic. So Lord, let us remember these words and commit them to our hearts:
How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.